Everyone is well aware of sons who feel rejected by their fathers. But are you like many fathers I meet who feel rejected by their sons? Is that you?
I know many are wondering, how can a grown man feel rejected by his own son? I suppose that is hard to grasp for men who do not yet have children. If you do have children, then possibly you understand how this can happen. I will illustrate this from my own personal experience.
My daughter was born in 2000. She was our first. I was fiercely protective of her; a typical first-time fatherly response. When relatives took her from my arms, I would at times feel angry that they were encroaching on “my” time with “my” daughter. Throughout her infancy, I will always remember that she often wanted me to hold her. She loved having me carry her around and take her on long walks.
Along came my son in 2003. I was less protective the second time around. When he slept, I slept too. I did not listen to every single breath to make sure he was still alive. As a dad with two kids under 3, I was exhausted. I figured God was good enough to give him the breathe he needed while I slept! In saying this, I in no way mean to imply I enjoyed my son any less — to the contrary, I loved holding my little guy and taking him on long walks too.
I loved taking him on various outings with me. One day, a woman at the store said, “He’s so adorable. Where did you adopt him?” To understand what she meant, you need to know that my wife is Chinese. I replied, “Where do you think I adopted him?” She said, “He looks Chinese to me.” I said, “You’re right. But does China adopt little boys?” She looked puzzled for a second and then said, “Actually, they don’t. So He’s Korean?” I smiled and proudly said, “He’s my own flesh and blood. This is my boy. The missing link is that my wife is Chinese.” We both laughed…
I enjoyed my son so much (as I do to this day). Yet until he was about 30 months old, the only person he wanted was Mom. Forgive me for being a wimp, but my heart ached with rejection every time my son chose my wife over me. He was “my boy” and he didn’t want me many times. I admit it: it hurt. The question is: what do I do with this kind of hurt?
In my counseling, I run across many fathers and their teenage sons. There is distance. There is disconnection. There is dysfunction. We all know the story about homosexual youth who report feeling “different” from their brothers or other male peers. We often find that this different-ness is rooted in a disconnection with and sense of rejection from their father. One young man recently described this to me as a “confusing gap.” He knew at an early age that something was missing.
Increasingly, though, I hear fathers reporting that they too felt rejected — by their sons! In many cases, it seems that this rejection precedes and is linked to rejection that sons later feel from their fathers. From the cases I have seen, this mutual sense of rejection is sequential; that is, fathers who feel rejected by their sons tend to respond by rejecting their sons.
Is this childish behavior for a grown man to hold his infant, toddler or elementary-aged son accountable for rejecting him? Quite honestly, I must say YES. But being a father, I understand that such feelings are real. As legitimate as they may be, however, I ultimately must challenge myself and other fathers to be ‘men’ to our boys. We are adults and we must overcome disappointment and rejection in adult ways. To allow our hurt feelings to grow into a conscious or subconscious rejection of our sons is an immature and extremely dangerous thing.
As I often write, many will read ALL content of ALL my articles as relating ONLY to homosexuality. When in reality what I am ‘actually’ saying is that intentional or unintentional rejection of ANY child, boy or girl, homosexual or heterosexual, is an immature and extremely dangerous thing with tragic consequences.
When we fathers allow our sons to hurt us so deeply that we turn around and reject them, we feed bad soil into the development of their entire sense of being or personal identity. We warp their view of healthy love. We bend their view of masculinity. We twist the ways in which they will seek male affirmation in the future. We damage their self-image. We ruin their view of authority. We leave them feeling conditionally loved and rejected. Even condemned. This is tragic and so very dangerous.
From the way fathers respond, some might be tempted to think we fathers have been ‘abused’ by our sons! In reality, the typical stories I hear actually involve quite benign events that trigger overly strong responses in fathers: An infant wants to be held by a distant uncle instead of dad in front of the whole family at some holiday gathering; a toddler screams and demands to be comforted by Mom at bedtime; an older toddler tells dad that he doesn’t love him anymore; an elementary age son tells dad he no longer wants to play baseball or he no longer wants dad to be his soccer coach; an adolescent tells dad he doesn’t want to be touched. Children do these kinds of things – it’s quite common and developmentally natural. Unfortunately, many dads take deep personal offense to these kinds of turn-downs. Some will turn that rejection back on their own children…
I cannot say it more clearly: a father’s response to his children in good and bad times is so critical. So what can we do? What can we, as fathers, do when we feel rejected by our sons?
First, we need to be men. We are adult men and we need to understand that our sons are not adults. They don’t always know why they respond the way they do – we should not expect them to. We should have thick skin – we need to be prepared to feel rejection quite regularly!
Second, we need to carry our hurts to the Cross and allow Jesus to minister to any pain that we might feel in reaction to our sons rejecting us. We need to lay down our lives for our sons the way Jesus laid down his life for all of the ways that we have rejected Him. This is our job as fathers: to reflect the love of Christ even in the midst of not receiving love in return. Is there any other way? Not according to the Gospel…
Third, we need to invest in our sons. If they reject us, we must pursue them. We pursue them by creatively finding ways to (a) draw them out into play; (b) draw them out into affection; and (c) draw them out into relational connection. We must never allow our son’s rejection of us to grow into a bitterness (or distance) that later tempts us to reject them. The cost of doing so is ultimately great: greater than many dads can ever imagine.
Many fathers do not realize that they have allowed their hurt feelings to turn them against their sons. Many still go about loving their sons and doing fun activities but they have established a seemingly safe emotional distance that sends implicit signals of rejection toward their sons. Moms often see this. They often comment on it. Dads often deny it or respond defensively to such suggestions: “What do you want? I love the kid,” dad says. Somehow, they say the ‘right’ words but the way they say it reveals something deeply troubling.
It is critical to say that this is not about shame and blame: this is about learning how to be a loving father who draws our sons out into healthy personal identity; or maybe for you this is about looking at the past in order to gain a forward-looking strategy for winning your son’s trust again. If we want to avoid (or heal) these mistakes, we need to be aware of them and our tendency as fathers to sometimes act childishly.
With my own son, I never tried to ‘steal’ him away from Mom. I always tried to respect that he was just a baby and that my wife was the one with the smoothie-mixers: how could I possibly compete with that! I also refused to let my hurt feelings turn me against him. As he grew, I always worked on investing in new ways to build his connection with me. Today, he is almost 5 years old and he has shifted from Mom to Dad. In fact, he wants me ALL the time. It’s great. It’s also demanding. To be there for him, I have to intentionally decide to step into his world to play and watch him explore and discover “his” world.
With my daughter, she allowed me to carry her wherever “I” wanted to go. I could incorporate her need for me into whatever I was doing. If I had a mission meeting, she would play on my lap or on the floor beside me quite contentedly. If I planted flowers, she would dig next to me. Whatever “I” wanted to do, she was happy to go along for the ride.
My son, however, has a very distinct sense of what “he” wants. I cannot steer him my direction. To invest in “our” relationship, I have to go where “he” wants to go and do what “he” wants to do. He wants me to watch him do his own thing. He wants me to be interested as he discovers things on his own. I have a lot less control. The question is this: am I going to pull away because I am out of control; am I going to withdraw when he rejects me or my ideas or my interests? Or will I allow him to have my full attention sincerely and without condition? I strive for the latter: I don’t always succeed. But I never stop trying…
Some are thinking, “Your son is still young. But my son is 15. I cannot go back. It’s too late.” If ‘rejection’ is the seed that you have (unintentionally) planted in your relationship with your son, real damage has no doubt been done to a lesser or greater extent. But please listen to what I am about to say because I really want to encourage you: my friend, it is NEVER too late. There IS something you can do – today – to work toward overcoming such damage. But you must genuinely desire to invest in rebuilding deeper connectivity with your son. It is hard work and it will require significant investment. It will cost something great. But it’s worth it.
If your son is a teen, you DO still have time! Prior to him leaving home or reaching legal adulthood, you still have time to invest in his presence at home while he is still subject to your authority. You do not want to invest in his life based upon such authority; rather, you want to increasingly aim to have “influence” in his life as he reaches adulthood. You can do that in several ways:
(1) You can take your son aside and express your sincere apologies for the ways in which your actions or inactions have contributed to the disconnection between the two of you. If you resist because you fear you might break down and cry, I say, “Break down and cry.” It will be good for your son to see you express your emotions. It will be good for you to get some tears out as well.
(2) You can specifically admit to the things you did that contributed to such disconnection. Further, you can humbly admit to your son, “I know there are likely many other ways that I have hurt you. I would like to hear what you remember: can you share with me what you remember?”
(3) You can acknowledge your son’s perception of reality even if your memories vary from his. Remember this golden rule: your son’s perception IS his reality. If he thinks it’s real, it is real to him whether it actually happened or not. This is not the time to be defensive or to deny or to try to correct his recollection: this is a time to listen.
(4) You can gently, unconditionally express your love and acceptance for your son – right where he is; just as he is. You might see sin. You might see rebellion. You might see unhealthy acting out. You might see things that disgust you and embarrass you. Is this any different than what we have done to God? Your son needs mercy, dad. Live and die extending mercy to rebuild broken bridges of trust with your son.
(5) You can offer your son physical and emotional affirmation regardless of his response.
If your son is now an adult out on his own, you may not have the same authority or influence to gain his willingness to participate with you in taking a look at the past. If he is willing, count your blessings and invest in a season of rebuilding relational connectivity and re-establishing trust. If he is not willing, you can still confess your wrongs and invite him to share his hurtful memories. Be thankful for any response. For the response that you do ‘not’ receive, pray into the silence and ask God to open his heart toward you. Do not be afraid to apologize again in the future – you never know when he might open up! And Dad, read #4 and #5 again…you can do that all the rest of your son’s life!
Now dads, I have to make one thing clear. This is not easy work. This does not just happen. I have given many dads very clear instructions on what to do and in follow-ups I have repeatedly heard them recount what they said to their sons. In some cases, what dad actually says is unintentionally laced with blame, shame, denial or defensiveness. They don’t mean to – it just seems to seep out. We need to be on guard against this. In other cases, they say all the right things – but the tone or manner in which they express themselves is somehow sterile or cold; it’s as if mom or some strange counselor (that would be me) told them what to say! In many cases, however, dads not only say the right thing: they share with genuine passion as they express their love for their son. I am always so encouraged when I come across such fathers.
I regularly work with fathers and sons (in particular) to help them rebuild their relational connectivity. There is no greater joy than when a dad ‘gets it’ and does the right thing and we watch as a son is transformed toward reconciliation before our eyes: it’s a beautiful thing.
Fathers, I hope this article gives you hope. Yes, we all feel guilty for the ways in which we have rejected or otherwise hurt our sons. But you know what – we need to redeem those hurts and believe that our Heavenly Father will turn wounded relationships into healed ones. Do not give up trying to invest in relational repair.
Dad, it is NEVER too late to try one more time.
God bless you,
Click here to easily navigate to Part 3.
This series deals with fathers and sons. Relational orientation counseling can be a blessing to any parent of any child — boy, girl, homosexual or heterosexual. If your family is in need of such counseling, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to serve your family. God bless.